Ever since the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad responded to peaceful popular protests in the country with a brutal military crackdown in 2011, the ensuing civil war has witnessed numerous atrocities in Syria. Opposition fighters as well as civilians have been the victims.
One of the most controversial aspects of these incidents, which has driven the parameters of the conflict far beyond human capacity for killing, is the use of chemical weapons against civilians, with attacks in Ghouta, Khan al-Assal and Saraqib in 2013, more in 2014, 2015 and 2016. The Khan Sheikhun chemical weapons attack in 2017 and the Douma attack in 2018 both resulted in massive international condemnation and even US strikes on Syrian air bases and other sites.
It has always been suspected that the Syrian regime committed the chemical weapons attacks, although some have been attributed to other groups, such as Daesh in the attack on Marea in 2015. The UN and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) investigated the 2018 Douma attack, and the OPCW released a report in March last year which said that analyses proved that there were “reasonable grounds” that “the use of a toxic chemical had taken place” which contained “reactive chlorine”. The international community considered the matter to be closed.
However, to the delight of the Assad regime and its Russian allies, the South African ballistics inspector for the OPCW, Ian Henderson, emerged a few months later with a report which differed from his organisation’s final conclusions. Henderson said that there was a possibility that the chlorine cannisters which were found at the site were not, in fact, dropped by Syrian helicopters but were placed there by others as yet unknown and unidentified.
Then came a stream of academics testifying their support for the Henderson report and their scepticism that the Assad regime had committed the atrocity. Among these figures were the journalist and author Peter Hitchens, and the former senior foreign correspondent of the Guardian, Jonathan Steele, both of whom suggested that the OPCW maliciously suppressed details provided to it in defence of the Syrian President. Twenty staff members of the OPCW backed up this conclusion, and the organisation faced a barrage of testimonies in which its 2019 report was accused of being “scientifically impoverished, procedurally irregular and possibly fraudulent.”
All of this culminated in Henderson testifying at the UN Security Council on 20 January that the regime in Syria did not conduct the Douma chemical attack. Those who back Henderson on this issue include a number of professors at British universities.
The Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media has now been established. According to its website, the group is “entirely independent, open to academics and independent researchers and is not aligned to any state or non-state actor.” There has since been a plethora of reports and accusations that it is actually funded by Russia to promote pro-Assad propaganda, and that it was created to cover up war crimes by Syrian and Russian troops. Regardless of who is funding the Working Group, the fact remains that it includes Assad apologists who are, as one European diplomat put it “unwittingly and naively acting as agents of propaganda for the Russians, or actively support[ing] Russian disinformation.”
Although the group also claims that it “is committed to the upholding of international law and human rights norms,” it has proven otherwise by neglecting to recognise the previous chemical attacks which contain firmer evidence of Assad’s involvement. The 2013 Ghouta attack, for example, was a prime example, with Human Rights Watch reporting that the sarin gas used made the regime the most likely culprit, as was the UN’s conclusion about the 2017 Khan Sheikhun attack.
The Assad regime’s countless other crimes against humanity and against the Syrian people have also been dismissed by the group: the torture, detention, forced disappearances, displacement of huge numbers of civilians, and the ongoing bombardment and destruction of areas which have not yet submitted to the regime.
Though the regime and Russia may have won the propaganda war against the opposition and its supporters for now, the “independent” group of academics and other Assad apologists want to legitimise the crimes of the Syrian regime by sweeping them under the carpet. The regime and its allies are going to such lengths to cover their tracks that they are blaming previous attacks — and even future attacks — on the White Helmets, the volunteer civil defence organisation providing logistic and medical care to those affected by the war. Media in Russia and Syria accuse the organisation of staging the chemical attacks and planning new atrocities to provoke the world against Assad. Such claims by the “Axis of Resistance” countries and their media, however, have already been debunked comprehensively by a number of outlets and organisations.
In the ongoing controversy over the identity of those responsible for the Douma chemical weapons attack, and the Syrian-Russian victory concerning the legitimacy of the OPCW report, the Working Group of academics and others who have defended the Assad regime so vehemently with regard to this single incident seem to have overlooked the mountain of human rights violations and war crimes upon which the regime of the Syrian leader is built. Whether that is wilful neglect or simply incompetence on the part of the group remains to be seen.
Nevertheless, if there is some doubt about the identity of the Douma culprits, there is no doubt whatsoever about who is responsible for numerous other crimes against the people of Syria since 2011 and even earlier. Why is this fact being ignored by the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media if its members are truly “independent”? One chemical weapons report should not whitewash a decade of Assad’s crimes against his own citizens.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.